Bryan Colangelo and Sam Mitchell never had much of a relationship, much trust, but the beginning of the end for Mitchell, the deposed Toronto Raptors coach, had to be gathering his players and demanding to know “the snitches” responsible for ratting out his round of golf on the eve of elimination in last season’s playoffs.
The Raptors could’ve practiced in Toronto and left later that Saturday between Games 4 and 5 of the Eastern Conference playoffs in April, but Mitchell wanted an early wake-up call and an early flight to Orlando. He would later say it was because he wanted his players to get extra shooting on the Amway Arena rims, but the rush to catch more daylight hours left an appearance that the motivation was less shooting, more swinging.
“I think the ship had already set sail with the players and Sam, but that didn’t help,” a league source said.
They were forever the ultimate of basketball odd couples, Colangelo and Mitchell, a general manager and coach on course for inevitable combustion. This partnership was doomed, but there have been a lot of those lately in the NBA. When Colangelo was hired in 2006, Mitchell had been on the bench for two losing seasons. With Mitchell at the end of his coaching contract, it was just a matter of time until Colangelo could fire him, hire his own coach and evolve his Euro-NBA style with a true believer.
Yet Mitchell won 47 games, became the NBA’s Coach of the Year and ultimately earned a grudging contract extension out of his boss. Mitchell’s sensibilities were old-school defense and physicality, clashing with Colangelo’s resolve to make the Raptors cutting edge on the changing global game. To Mitchell, his boss was far too hands-on, too insistent on playing a No. 1 pick, Andrea Bargnani, when the coach never believed he had earned the minutes.
Whatever the differences, Colangelo and Mitchell will both agree: They’ll be far happier apart than they ever were together.
Across the league everyone is witnessing the flushing out of coaches that GMs never hired or never wanted. Mitchell’s gone. So is Eddie Jordan in Washington, whose hiring belonged to owner Abe Pollin. Despite good success, Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld was never enamored of Jordan. Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti did hire P.J. Carlesimo, but San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pushed Thunder owner Clay Bennett much harder for Carlesimo than Bennett’s young GM did.
All those coaches are gone, and there are two more – Sacramento’s Reggie Theus and Philadelphia’s Maurice Cheeks – on deck. Theus was the choice of the Kings’ owners, the Maloof brothers, but GM Geoff Petrie will make the call on his firing. “His time is short, but it’s not over,” a Kings source said. Philadelphia GM Ed Stefanski is losing patience with Cheeks and the Sixers’ sluggish start has placed the coach in peril.
“Right now we’re in a cycle of quick firings,” said ex-Houston Rockets and New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, who works in cable television now. “The thing that’s interesting to me is that if a coach has been there with you, you should already know if he’s the right guy for your team. It shouldn’t be about a bad stretch or one bad loss. Either you believe in the guy or not. Anybody can react to the record. That doesn’t take any foresight.
“You can make the case that some of these firings have been in the making for a long time and then executed when there was an opening that made them politically expedient.”
What’s evolving is this: the multimillion-dollar, long-term contract is becoming more scarce. No one seems motivated to recruit and overpay college coaches anymore. Those days are done. Owners are desperate to cut costs and they’re telling GMs to do it with the coaches: shorter contracts and fewer guaranteed millions. Beyond the Popovichs and Phil Jacksons, the instances of the superstar coaching contracts are over. More and more, GMs want lower-maintenance coaches on the sidelines. Those daring to challenge front-office authority have fallen out of favor.
“GMs hire coaches to coach, but you hope that certain ideals and philosophies are generally the same,” Colangelo said Thursday. “Most of the time you try to build a team around that model, but talent sometimes dictates otherwise. Over time, the talent acquired by trade, draft or free agency should better fit that system. If a GM allows for significant input from his coach regarding personnel, the system and style should not be a subject for debate.”
As for Colangelo, he has an intriguing decision to make. There’s long been a belief that he would hire Italian coach Ettore Messina, who is now with Russia powerhouse CSKA. Colangelo, a source close to him said, “would like that to happen, but knows that Ettore would have to be an assistant in the NBA first to gain some status with players.”
Once interim coach Jay Triano is out of the way, Colangelo will have to make the hire that’ll ultimately be a part of Chris Bosh’s choice to stay or go in 2010. Only the future of the franchise depends on it. He’s been one of basketball’s best GMs, one of its innovative thinkers and now Bryan Colangelo will get what everyone in his job wants these days: His own coach, his own vision unleashed.